Flatten the curve. Radio, television, and Internet authorities drummed the message into us at the beginning of the COVID drama early in 2020.
That little mantra has long since been dropped, of course. In the interval we have been lectured about the wickedness of those who wear masks, and then later about the wickedness of those who refuse to wear masks; funerals for our loved ones have been suppressed as public health hazards, even as anyone daring to criticize rioters and looters has been castigated as a racist.
Almost from the very beginning, those rare souls who would emphasize modest, commonsense countermeasures against the epidemic were drowned out by opportunistic grandstanding, apocalyptic fear-mongering, and messianic rhetoric about the salvific power of “Science.” Let anybody infuriated and disillusioned by this state of affairs rest assured: I get it.
Much as I am myself fed up with COVID hype, however, whenever I hear someone demand to know when things will finally get back to normal, I can’t help but raise what seems to me a self-evident follow-up question: What exactly do we mean by “normal?” Just how “normal” were things to begin with?
First and most obviously, there is the abnormality of a society wherein mothers frequently opt to have their own children murdered. Yet it seems to me important for us to admit that abortion is only the most glaring symptom of a more pervasive underlying disease. Only those who have had their heads in the sand would hope to see our nursing homes get back to “normal,” for instance. Having heard unsavory accounts from overworked orderlies while teaching medical ethics at the Louisville community college, having an attorney brother who handles nursing home abuse cases, and having once gotten to know some nursing home residents as part of a Great Books discussion project at a facility in Maryland, I cannot but find the notion of “normalcy” with respect to nursing homes inane. Even many ancient pagan societies were sound enough to recognize elders as irreplaceable, living repositories of experience – the memory of the tribe. Enlightened America regards elders much as it regards children – as liabilities, obstacles which interfere with the frantic pursuit of happiness via mass consumption.
Just to be clear, none of this is intended to stigmatize those who for whatever reason are in no position to care for a sick or aging relative. The point is not to pass sweeping judgments over every last unique situation, but to recognize that much of what is taken for normal in American life is anything but, and was so long before Wuhan hit the news. Schools must stay open, I have heard, not for the sake of education but because many children come from single-parent homes, or from households where the mother has to work, and so if schools close said children have no one to look after them. Likewise, it goes against family values to limit interstate travel, we may be told, because then all the children and siblings who have scattered themselves across a half-dozen states cannot cross the lines to make the occasional family reunion.
Until we can reconsider some unspoken premises in the preceding arguments, we will remain a lost people.
Moreover, lockdowns really are normal, truly so, and under the right circumstances are as beneficial and American as apple pie. Those too invested in the ideology of democratic capitalism may find it distasteful, but if we look a few decades further into the past we find that pretty much every small town – and even some parts of cities – used to undergo an all-day, intensive lockdown once a week. Literally, every single week. And let it be emphasized that this was not under some socialist dictatorship, not in Communist China, not even under the Obama administration, but in America during her very heyday. Once upon a time it was customary on every seventh day for families to be stuck together, for road traffic to dwindle to an economically unproductive and inefficient trickle, for businesses to close up, for public offices to shut down, for libraries to lock their doors, and for sporting events to be postponed. In some places, in living memory, it has even been illegal on such lockdown days for a person to hunt with firearms on his own property. Liberal fascism, indeed.
That said, there was one big difference between the old-time weekly lockdowns and the more recent one: During the lockdowns back then, churches remained very open. We can contrast all this with the “normal” of 2019, for which churchgoing seems to have been one lifestyle option among many and American life as a whole was patterned upon that of New York City: go, go, go, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I can’t help but wonder if our collective refusal to submit to mild, salutary limitations like the Sabbath “lockdowns” of yesteryear has had something to do with putting us in our current predicament.
Extreme freedom always leads to extreme slavery, so Plato tells us (Republic, Book VIII 564a). Looking at the state of American culture and morals, we would be hard-pressed to come up with a more chilling thought.
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